Ben Bagdikian saw the crisis of journalism coming, and he knew that this would be a crisis for American democracy.
He knew that monopolization of media ownership would create a top-down form of communications that empowered elites, that would invite manipulation, and that would starve voters of the information they needed to be their own governors.
He also knew that the changes would dramatically undermine the role of journalism in a media system where commercial and entertainment demands replaced civic and democratic values.
Bagdikian, the Armenian-American immigrant who became one of this country’s great journalists and then the greatest media critic of his time, has died at age 96. He lived long enough to see the decline of journalism and democracy that he had predicted play out in a politics that was as cruel and dysfunctional as he feared. Yet he never hesitated to remind us that we have the power to reform and renew not just journalism but governing systems that are supposed to draw their authority from the people.
Those of us who have built our own critiques of contemporary media upon the foundation that Bagdikian provided with his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, have always recognized that the genius of this Pulitzer and Peabody Award-winning journalist was not in his charting of the steadily increasing control of communications by a handful of conglomerates. It was in the understanding Bagdikian provided about the danger that was inherent in allowing the dominance of the discourse by a handful of wealthy and self-interested corporations. As Andrew Hacker observed in his review of the first edition of The Media Monopoly: “Thus the real thesis of The Media Monopoly is that the United States has become a corporate state, with its own ‘Private Ministry of Information and Culture’ (Mr. Bagdikian’s phrase) intent on erasing the capacity for discerning thought.”
Many debated Bagdikian’s conclusions, and there are still fabulists who imagine that a new age of click- and rating-driven communications somehow provides Americans with a range of digital and cable TV options that will avert “the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian.” But serious observers of the American circumstance will recognize the clear and present dangers of a moment, as Bagdikian observed in the introduction to The New Media Monopoly in 2004. With the consolidation of definitional control over communications into the handful of enormously influential media giants, he noted, “this gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.”
Today, as Donald Trump goes from strength to strength on the basis of obsessive and unthinking media coverage that has warped the content and character of the 2016 presidential race, it is easy to see the damage only at the national level. But Bagdikian was right to warn that the greatest damage to democracy would be seen closest to home.
“Unlike other developed democracies, the United States does not have a parliamentary political system in which voters cast their ballots for parties. Parties in most countries have distinct commitments to differing national programs, differences easily discerned by voters. Citizens voting in those countries know that when they cast their ballots for a party’s candidate they are voting for particular policies. In the United States, voters cast ballots for individual candidates who are not bound to any party program except rhetorically, and not always then…. No American citizen can vote intelligently without knowledge of the ideas, political background, and commitments of each individual candidate,” Bagdikian wrote in 1997. “No national paper or broadcast station can report adequately the issues and candidates in every one of the 65,000 local voting districts. Only locally based journalism can do it, and if it does not, voters become captives of the only alternative information, paid political propaganda, or no information at all.”
As regional daily newspapers have shuttered, as local newspapers have downsized, as local radio hosts have been replaced by syndicated “content,” and as old lines of distinction between broadcast and print and digital media ownership have been blurred (thanks to wrongheaded federal legislation, lax regulation, and greed), communities across this country have become information deserts. Voter turnout for local elections is often so dismal that it invites questioning about how cities, villages, and towns are governed—and how those in power are held to account.
Ben Bagdikian warned us that this time would come. But sounding the alarm was never sufficient in the eyes of the man who in 1971 worked with Daniel Ellsberg and others to reveal—with the publication of the Pentagon Papers—the wrongdoing and wrong-thinking of the policymakers who steered this country into the Vietnam War.
Ben Bagdikian was a pioneering media reformer, who always recognized the importance of ownership rules and models that would strengthen and expand the discourse (at the local, state, national, and international levels), and with it democracy. And he was a teacher of journalists who preached that, whether they worked in print, broadcast, or online, they should “never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.”